This episode is a treat!
In our last two book episodes, we covered Kindly Inquisitors and The Constitution of Knowledge, both by Jonathan Rauch. We are delighted to have Jonathan on the show today to talk about both books and some points of disagreement we had when we covered the books. We discuss the nature of moral progress, whether his most recent book was politically biased, and what we can make of the credibility of our knowledge-making institutions, particularly the mainstream media.
You can find Jonathan on Twitter @jon_rauch, and on his website https://www.jonathanrauch.com.
Some links to articles that Jonathan mentioned in the discussion:
Get yourself a copy of Jonathan's books:
**Hirad :** So Jonathan Rauch! Thanks for joining us on fresh lens.
**Jon:** Good to be here.
**Hirad :** For our listeners, maybe we can kind of give a bit of a background of How you ended up on the show. So from our side for anyone who's been listening we typically do these long episodes on books that we enjoy reading and talking about on the podcast.
And I had come across kindly inquisitors from a few different sources on my Twitter feed and through persuasions slack community, I believe. And so we read that book, we liked it so much and that we were like, okay, so the same author has another book that has come out more recently. We should definitely do that.
So we did two back-to-back episodes on your two books. And there was a couple of points that we raised on the show that you heard about. And we wanted to talk about further. So what was what was the, your experience of coming across the fresh lens?
**Jon:** I wish I could say, I remember where I found the podcast. It may have floated across because, you know, people just send me stuff or publicist or whatever, say here's something, but for whatever reason, it floated across my radar. And then I noticed first that you guys are very young, avid readers.
So that's interesting. And second you're the only people that I know of that have reviewed both books and on a side by side, it's always been one or the other, or one referring back to the other. And so I played them and you guys gave a very warm reception to kindly inquisitors and somewhat to my surprise, you gave a quite cold reception to constitution of knowledge.
And I was interested in your reasons some were profound, some were, were less so, but one of the most interesting things about being an author is have either of you written a book or articles, that kind of thing?
**Jon:** So when you do, especially if it's a book, one of the very interesting things about it is you just don't know how things will land. There's just no telling it's like firing arrows off into the air and then not being able to know quite where they go. And so that was a very interesting experience to hear them compared in that way.
And so. Just out of the blue. I said, okay, these guys are smart and interesting. And I have stuff to say about their reservations of constitutional knowledge, or at least I'd like to explore why they came out where they did. So I got in touch and you guys were receptive and here we are.
**Hirad :** we're very grateful that you're here.
**Trish:** Oh, it's such a generous offer. We are floored, you go out and we kind of run our mouths on these conversations. So this is a real treat for us to be able to speak with an author
**Jon:** So do you also feel like you're just shooting into outer space and nothing comes back and you have no idea if people are paying attention.
**Hirad :** Yeah, that's part of it. I also think we're, we're still in the phase of kind of finding our footing with the format of the show and how we talk about books and whatnot. And I think and it's also a bit of a learning curve of how to grow a podcast.
So maybe we can kick us off with one of the first topics that we raised at the end of kindly inquisitors and I think that would be a good segue into some of the things that we want to talk about constitution of knowledge.
And the first question was whether or not liberal science or the reality-based community can lead us towards moral knowledge and whether there's kind of a direction to our progress. And I think one of the things that we kind of reacted to in that first episode on kindly inquisitors was that I think both of us Trish more than me, I think because because of her religious background, we kind of feel like morality has to kind of stand on its own or, or moral precepts have to stand on their own without being tied to more, I guess, worldly foundations partly because what happens when you base your moral progress on things that may be constantly changing, it means your moral principles will have to react to that. Right? So if, I mean, we could, we have made certain progress that has landed in a certain way, but we just don't feel like there's specific direction to the way that they have turned out.
I think in much of history, we have also gone backwards on moral progress, right. And in certain places anything better more articulate than that, to add to that?
**Trish:** No, I haven't. I think I was just going to let Jonathan run with that. It's in the previous episodes. Right. I'd love to hear your response to this.
**Jon:** Well, it's a, it's a big question and I was glad you raised it. And Trish, yeah, it seemed like the reservations came primarily from, from your side. So one of the more epistemologically controversial claims that I make in both of these books and kindly inquisitors it's in the afterword, which I wrote eight years ago. And in constitution of knowledge, it's in the book itself is that what's, what's called liberal science in the first book. That's our big social system for making knowledge in a peaceful, productive way and what I call constitution of knowledge, reality-based community, whatever you call this thing, the social system to make knowledge.
That, of course it includes, you know, the hard sciences like biology, and it also includes things like journalism and the soft sciences, but I make the stronger claim that it's also useful as a system for organizing and advancing moral knowledge. And I argue that there is such a thing as moral knowledge, and that puts me in a minority among people who've looked at this question.
I think a lot of them would say, if they're on the sort of conservative religious side, Trish, I think they would say, as you say that look, moral knowledge comes from a different place. It has to be anchored. It just can't be subjected to constant falsification. And constant disputation. It comes from somewhere else, somewhere higher.
That's God, that's faith. And then there's a different, but equivalent kind of questioning from the left or from traditional epistemology, which is well look, you know, moral statements are statements of personal tastes and values. Like if I say murder is wrong, that's the equivalent of saying murder?
It's not ajudicable, it doesn't even really have meaning. It's just an expression of personal disgust. And, you know, that has, that's an aesthetic point. It has nothing to do really with science or knowledge, so morality doesn't fit. And then of course, on the on the far that political left, you get, well, morality is all about power anyway. So then I come along, I'm not quite alone, but I'm in a minority. And I say, no, there's such a thing as moral knowledge. For example, the idea that slavery is wrong is now so well attested to, by so many people of, from so many viewpoints with so much evidence adduced to destroy the claims that were used to justify slavery.
And it has withstood so many challenges for so long that we can claim it to be knowledge just as much as we can claim the speed of sound to be knowledge they're both based on carefully developed social consensus born of many years of argument and conversation and lots of empirical evidence, something like abortion, you can look at, well, the values questions are not finally resolvable, but we can look at stuff like, so, you know, what is the state of the fetus at a certain age?
So my claim Trish is that I guess Hirad, is that what you just said is wrong? It's, it's true. If human societies generally, that moral progress is a random walk. You know, if you look at the Roman empire or the Soviet union or lots of other places, you'll see periods when. The rights of minorities, for example, and personal freedoms advance, and then other periods when they declined.
And it depends on who's in charge of what's going on. But if you look at liberal societies, small L liberal that's ones that use use social rules and norms that are decentralized the protect minority rights, generally protect dissent, free speech. All of that, it is you can run the tape of those societies and you can always tell if the tape is running forward or backwards. If you see those societies moving toward greater inclusion, greater rights, personal dignity, wider circles of rights, wider freedoms, you know, the tape is running forward. If you see the subtraction of all those things, you know, the tape is running backwards and this is true throughout liberal societies. It is only true of liberal societies.
The others are a random walk and it is because the same social systems that we can use to organize the advance of scientific knowledge that may produce outcomes that are crisper and cleaner, but the same system can be used to organize our public conversations, our deliberations about moral truths.
we may not reach the same crisp conclusions, but the point is liberal science can organize pretty much any kind of debate and do it in a way that is constructive over time, so that you will begin to see the emergence of consensus, the application of evidence and reasoning argument. And that's why I'm a gay man in America.
And I'm now married because we had an opportunity to make our moral case. To debunk, the empirical claims that were wrong. And there are more advances to come.
**Trish:** Right, right. Thanks. That's that's really well put and it does offer a lot of clarification. If I can ask, just to make sure that I'm sort of getting this right, I'm just trying to think on the fly bear with me. As we kind of have seen that different economic systems benefit, a lot of people in that, it gives people a chance for, you know, some amounts of Liberty and some amounts that they're able to do better, and people are able to live like materially better. And not impoverished. We've seen that some of those work better for more groups of people, would it be the same direction, like as we're sort of as a species, figuring out economics, would you say that there's like a similar arrow for morality or , would that be not the right point to make ?
**Jon:** I'm not totally with you if you're talking about economics and whether there's economic progress or whether you're talking about some, is that the gist of it? I'm not
**Trish:** Well, I was kind of wondering. Yeah. So your, your argument would be that there was an arrow and that as we expand our moral systems to. Include more people in more dignified life. And, you know, with more rights, if, if that would be sort of, if you could make that analogy in, in other areas of human sort of progress.
Cause I think that I would have less issue with the idea of progress. Like one of the, the critique and the other episode was I think I would get really hung up on the word progress and what that sort of meant because you know, like the first thing that they beat into your head in first year, evolutionary biology is that evolution doesn't make progress.
It just kind of goes in whatever which way direction. And I was kind of wanting to fold morality into evolution.
**Jon:** Yeah, I noticed, I noticed that in this show, which is interesting, of course, in the long run evolution does have a direction of progress toward greater complex. In the very long run. So it progresses in that neutral sense that you can tell which way the tape is running. Now it's not necessarily moral progress.
You can't say, you know, the later species are better in any sense, or that, you know, birds are better than dinosaurs, but you do have a system that's able to support and generate more complexity and intricacy and networking over time. You know, you just don't see anything like the human brain in the first, what billion or so years. So it was interesting to me that you were uncomfortable with the idea of, of progress or advance, because, I mean, it seems to me that, especially when we're talking about liberal science, if anything is fairly obvious about it, it's that it does accumulate knowledge over time. And that humans, unlike.
I'm all for evolutionary epistemology and I use it, but we do have to remember the very big difference between biological evolutionary systems and humans ones, which is ours are directed by humans. We are thinking species with intentionality. So my claim is that the great virtue of liberal social systems, especially liberal science, but also markets and also constitutional republics is that they are capable of learning from their mistakes and directing themselves toward goals that humans value.
And because of those things, they're much better than alternative systems and they do result in the weeding out of mistakes over time. And that's everything from, you know, thinking in homosexuality is a disease, which in my lifetime. That was considered accepted scientific fact to some big moral questions, like, you know, the, the moral standing of women, for example.
So I argue for progress being a real thing. I mean, in some sense in almost undeniable thing, if you think about something like medical science, I mean, that's, that's clearly gotta be some kind of progress, Right I'm just making the bold claim that we can make a fuzzier, but still powerful claim for moral progress of the same kind over long periods of time.
**Trish:** right. That actually adds a lot of clarification. Thank you. Yeah, that gives me a lot to chew on. I really appreciate.
**Jon:** Is it, is it comfortable or persuasive for a religious person? Meaning, meaning you, I assume you're a Christian maybe,
**Trish:** Yeah. Yeah. Card-carrying Calvinist.
**Jon:** oh, Calvinist.
**Jon:** that that's helps. Helps me understand
**Trish:** right. I mean, I have, I have sort of two two ways of thinking of things like I've been involved in a book club for many, many years, and we read evolution and evolutionary biology. And I got a lot of what we discussed in the episode from books that we'd read in that book club. So part of me holds very dear you know, my religious belief, but I also feel like I've spent a lot of time exploring what evolution might.
Speak to our morality and sort of moral foundations theory. And there was one author in particular, Richard Alexander, that he wrote a book in the eighties called the biology of moral systems, which I think I was trying to represent very poorly in our discussions. So I think that, yeah, there's a, there's a lot there and I haven't heard your perspective before, and that's a really helpful viewpoint to consider.
**Hirad :** One question I had about this, actually, I think there was a passage in constitution of knowledge that got me thinking about this where you quote a abolitionist, whose name is escaping me in the late 19th century, who said slavery just can't tolerate freedom of speech. And, and similarly, there was a famous speech by Martin Luther King that said, well, if, if the.
Current treatment of African-Americans was happening somewhere in Russia or somewhere in China. I might be able to understand that treatment, but somewhere I read about the freedom of speech and somewhere I read about these inalienable rights. And what that got me thinking is how much that is the selection pressure.
That's determining the direction in which our morality goes, which is to say, it's not just that. Is it just that it's liberal science that is helping us make this moral progress? Or is it that is liberal science against this backdrop of the values that Western society has accumulated over time?
Which is for example, universalism which I think is a very uniquely Christian doctrine Are those two things really playing together to advance moral progress? Or is it kind of just a liberal system on its own? Because I think the, if, if you fundamentally don't believe people are equal a lot of the speech that has led to moral progress will, I don't think it would have the effect that it has had.
**Jon:** Boy now we're in really deep waters. This why like you guy's show it attracted me to it is, is you, you do not back away from the hard questions. And, and this is one that's divided philosophers for centuries and still does, which is can you have sustainable and morally acceptable liberalism without some kind of grounding in higher value, specifically religious values. And there's, there's this whole new group of not new, they're the latest proponents of an old view, but Patrick Deneen and people like that who are saying that liberalism by itself is self-destructive because it's just all about unstructured freedom. It comes untethered from the values that it depends on, and those values need to be rooted in, they would say, religious truths. And that when liberalism becomes unmoored from them, it just becomes like a lawnmower. You know, self-steering lawnmower, that's out of control, munching, everything in sight. So it's, it's a complicated question which to, which I don't have, I don't have a settled answer in my own mind because two things are true.
The first is that liberalism all its forms, markets. Liberal democracy and the constitution of knowledge, the big three that define small L liberal societies clearly have to be grounded in values. They are not value free. You know, a lot of people used to think they were, you know, they're, they're just like forums, platforms, marketplaces where people exchange according to preference and they don't impose any values of their own.
And most people including me now believe that that's not true. Liberalism is itself a sense of a set of values, such as all persons are created equal without those values, it does not survive. And then people say, well, where did those values come from? Is it Christianity? And some say yes, and others say they're primarily secular.
And I think the smart money is on. It's gotta be both, right? It's, it's a complicated system of, of interaction that produces these ideals. On the other hand, once you have these things set up, once you have a system like modern liberal democracy or the constitution of knowledge, and you've got vast research communities and vast journalistic establishment, and they're all acculturated to, for example, treating people interchangeably ie equally, that is according to the same rules, the law's the same for you and me.
We both get one vote. We have to do experiments that anyone can check all of that. Do you still need to be religious at that point to be deeply grounded in those societies' values and to be part of the project of human betterment? Well the answer is I hope not because I'm an atheist. And I think that I'm pretty good at behaving morally.
And following those rules, I don't come to them from where Trish comes, comes to them. I've never believed in God. I, I did try at one point as a teenager and it, I just knew I couldn't, you know, I, it was just fake. I had to stop. It was like pretending to be straight. So then the question becomes, so once liberal systems are in place, can we kind of kick the ladder away?
Like a lot of Western Europe has done and said, well, we don't really need the religious part. And maybe it helped us get here, but now we've advanced beyond it. Or do we still rely on it in some very deep, deep way to keep us grounded? And that's where you get me stumped, because it seems to me the answer to both questions has to be yes, to some extent. So you tell me.
**Hirad :** Well expect a call from us when we figure it out.
**Jon:** it is one of the most deep and difficult questions in all of political theory.
**Trish:** Great. Thank you. I think we'll. In light of time, we'll keep pushing ahead. I'm sure that is not the only
**Jon:** I think
you, I think you should. I think you should solve it. Right, right here.
**Hirad :** So let's talk about the constitution of knowledge. I think one of the things we, I'm not sure if we said this in the episode or not. I think we briefly mentioned it, but we talked about it after the episode for sure. Is I think it's a really great book. It was just the contrast between kindly inquisitors coming off of kindly inquisitors when we read the constitution of knowledge, it's a little bit jarring.
And I think why we thought it was a little bit jarring. Was our impression was that kindly inquisitors was very timeless. It was kind of very distilled and. Constitution of knowledge, I guess it kind of updated, it updated the same kind of viewpoints with more recent examples and more timely topics.
But we got the sense that it was a little bit partisan and just take, took away a little bit of the purity that we cherish so much , in kindly inquisitors. And I guess I'll let you respond to that and we can take it from there.
**Jon:** Well, the first thing is how interesting that was to hear because sometimes an author's perception of what they think they're doing is so different from the reader's perception of what the author is. The first very, I mean, there's a lot to say, and I don't want to drone on too long. The very first thing to say is how surprised I am about the belated discovery of kindly inquisitors because I don't know if you guys know this, that book was first published in 1993.
I wrote that book. I started when I was 29. I thought it was the most important work of philosophy ever written. I quit my job to do it wrote three separate drafts. The first two went in the trash can.
The third kind of, kind of got it right. And then I couldn't get it published. No one wanted it. I finally, because the alternative was to just basically, again, throw it in the trash. I brought it to a friend at a think tank, libertarian think tank, the CATO Institute. And he said, well, we could publish this. But then it turned out they had a publishing agreement with the university of Chicago press and they liked it.
So suddenly it was published by the greatest publisher in the field I'm writing in the world. And then it gets reviewed on the front page of the New York times book review, which in those days was the biggest thing that could possibly happen to a book. And that's when I realized that my big moment had come, except it hadn't because the book disappeared without a trace.
Like no one seemed to read it. No one seemed to notice it. And I just moved on with my life. I, you know, did gay marriage and lots of other things. And I figured, well, I guess that experiment didn't really work. And then about five or six years ago, you know, it's kind of percolating out there and some people are teaching it and then five or six years ago.
I start noticing it's developed an audience and a lot of them are people, your generation are slightly older and some of them encountered it in school. I don't know where you encountered it. I would love to know. And then it starts developing a word of mouth reputation. And then the biggest surprise is people now, like in the last year or two tweet about it all the time.
And they always say, this book seems so relevant. It could have been written yesterday. And I'm like, no, that book was written 28 frigging years ago. Every single example is 30 years out of date. What are they saying? But after a while after the hundredth or thousandth person said, this book could have been written yesterday, it's still relevant and fresh.
I'm like, Okay.
fine. It's still relevant and fresh. Have it your way. So that's a big surprise. I would love to know how you came across it. If you feel like just detour for a minute to tell you that before I tell you why I think constitution of knowledge, is a quite different book.
**Hirad :** Okay.
**Trish:** I heard about it from Hirad. So Hirad, how did you hear about it?
**Hirad :** I don't remember how I heard about it, but I would not be surprised. I think there's a corner of the internet that is extremely distraught at some of the recent trends. I I've definitely like in the time that as an adult, I have been observing politics and social trends, just, I would say in the last 10 years it's been this increasingly stifling environment.
And I started seeing it , in my own work. I work in tech. I started seeing that kind of thing. A lot of the humanitarian threats kind of come up in the tech world and tech conferences. And I think there was a corner of the internet. That's very concerned about this trend and it only got worse in the last couple of years.
And I think it just, that's where I found it probably somewhere on Twitter among this contingent that is worried about what's happening right now, to public discourse.
**Jon:** And So you picked it up and you were impressed and you recommended it to Trish.
**Trish:** No, I think it was just on , your list. of books to read and we, and we, decided to read it.
**Hirad :** Yeah. And we just decided to cover it for the podcast.
**Jon:** Well, I have to tell you, my feelings are very mixed. When I hear people say that this book seems fresh and relevant because it's a compliment to the book, but it is not a compliment to our society. I wrote that book very much hoping that it, it could be rendered obsolete. And to my credit, I identified arguments like emotional safety and words that wound very early in the game, but I clearly did not succeed in slowing them down as cultural phenomenon. I change. I mean, there was a change in the way they were expressed culturally that's for sure.
**Trish:** It, has it been difficult to not be like I told you? So, because literally I feel like if I was you and I wrote that book 28 years ago, I would have a very hard time being like, guys, I warned you about all of this.
**Jon:** I w maybe I would say that if I had gotten over being surprised and amazed that the book has been discovered, I always knew it was a great and important book and I'm serious about that, but it was way ahead of its time. And I just thought it would be like, you know, Carmen, the most popular opera ever written with Bizet, the composer died thinking it was a total flop.
Only after he died, did it become the most popular opera of all time. So I'm just feeling kind of amazed and glad that I'm still alive to see my book have a Renaissance. But so there's, there's, there's not that kind of, I told you so element, the other reason there's not is that if you're an advocate of free speech and liberal institutions, you just have to realize that that they will, these are the most successful, but also the most counter-intuitive social ideas of all time bar none.
I mean, the idea that we should rely on this, this vast external community of total strangers doing stuff we don't understand to tell us what's true. The idea that the speech that's obnoxious, wrongheaded, hateful, blasphemous, whatever should not just be tolerated, but actively protected by the government.
That's just, that just seems insane. No previous society practiced that. And the, the only reason these ideas persist is that they turn out to be the most successful social ideas of all time, modern liberalism, but they'll never be intuitive. They'll never be widely accepted, which means people like me and my children's generation.
I don't have kids, but their children and their children and grandchildren will just have to get up every morning for the rest of their lives and defend these systems from scratch period forever. And the good news is we've done a pretty good job of that because we still have free speech and, you know, liberal societies.
We hope we'll still have liberal democracy in America, five years from now, but we're not really sure of that actually. So I told you so, but only in the sense that I'll always be telling you stuff. We'll always have to say it. So here's why I was surprised that you guys thought constitution of knowledge was kind of a rehash you know, the disappointing star wars sequel, where they should have just stopped with the good one, which is that I thought that I had omitted the most important single part of liberal social order in, in kindly inquisitors. I basically take a Millian, Popperian view of where knowledge comes from the marketplace of ideas, view that if you just have a lot of ideas out there and you have a lot of advocates and critics and they criticize each other, we will find our errors and knowledge will evolve. Now there's nothing wrong with that view.
I'm all for it. It's a huge breakthrough. I'm a big fan of Karl popper and his whole school and evolutionary epistemology and all of those things. But what I came to realize is that the attacks that we're facing today on, , our epistemic order on how we distinguish truth from falsehood, develop knowledge, are attacks primarily on the institutions that we rely on and the rules that we rely on to make these knowledge.
And they're just assuming if you have free speech and some type of exchange of ideas, the rest will happen by itself. Turns out to be totally wrong because it turns out that humans are psychologically actually not well-equipped to do abstract thinking. And in unstructured situations, we behave like Twitter, trolls.
We promote our tribes, we pursue our self interests. We seek attention. We engage in all those behaviors and it turns out that it takes a huge amount of structure and rules and social institutions to get us B to behave. That forced us to actually compare views in a systematic, constructive way, which is really hard to do, right.
I mean, it's, it's just much easier to, you know, call someone names or say you're just wrong. And so that led to the idea of the constitution of knowledge. I think a actually truly new idea, which is free speech. Isn't enough. You need institutions and rules. Here's what they are. And I felt that what was constitutional knowledge was doing the kindly inquisitors had failed to do or not even tried to do because I didn't realize it had to be done was open the black box in the middle of the marketplace of ideas and show the systems that you need to have to force this system of organized public contention and persuasion so that you get knowledge out.
The other end, you can't just assume that will happen. And. The result of that, I think is what I call Madisonian epistemology Madison. You guys are Canadians. I'm guessing you do know who James Madison was though. Father of
**Hirad :** We do now because we read
the constitution of
**Jon:** I think the greatest, I think the greatest political philosopher ever, including Aristotle, he's the guy who gets us from the declaration of independence, which is a set of general principles about equality and rights to architecting a social system that can do the job of creating a Republic in which people are forced to compromise and forced to work out their disagreements in peaceful, productive ways.
And that's all of these institutions, divisions of power, multiple levels of government, different branches of government, a bunch of rules for how they have to behave. And it's not just Madison, it's all the stuff that comes after, you know, judicial review and direct election of senators. All kinds of stuff.
So in the political world, people understand there's a constitution We have to understand these rules and defend them that don't just take care of themselves. That's why we're in such a lather about Donald Trump and his MAGA movement. They are attacking those institutions. Those institutions are obstacles to their rule.
What we forgot is that we have the same kind of system making knowledge. and that it's doing exactly the same kind of thing that Madison's constitution is doing. It is forcing people to behave in ways that will expose their views to criticism and contention in an orderly way, according to rules So that everyone has to be able to check everyone else.
And it's setting up the institutions that do that. And it's heavy. It's setting up lots of professional protocols. That turn ordinary people into experts and it's hugely difficult and expensive and time consuming. And it requires a ton of forbearance on the part of individuals. Think about all the education that, that you guys have to go through.
Or the years it took me to learn to be a journalist and that's nothing compared with, you know, learning medical science. And so that's the stuff that the constitution of knowledge is about which kindly inquisitors skipped over and which I think all of society skipped over with the result that it became very easy for Donald Trump and cancellers and the other people I talk about to attack these institutions because we forgot they were even there.
**Hirad :** So I think one thing Trisha and I were talking about just before we started this recording was I think one of the main things that for me, it was always a little bit of a shock that, you know, for years I've been observing politicians that kind of promise everything and deliver nothing. And it's, there's this kind of background of you always know that the politician, whatever the politician is saying on stage at the podium.
There's a good chance they might be lying. And I think , one thing in my head was always, why are people getting so tripped up about the fact that Trump lies when we know that everybody's lying? And I think one of the things that made it really crisp for me while reading constitution of knowledge is that Trump isn't just lying the way any politician lies.
When other politicians lie, they have to pay lip service to truth. They have to pretend that they value truth. It's just that they're not delivering it to you. You find out later. But they still pretend that they value truth. What Trump did was essentially say truth does not matter. I'm going to tell you whether it rained or not on my inauguration day and I'm not even going to try to appear truthful.
**Jon:** Yeah. And. I might say the total opposite tomorrow.
**Hirad :** Exactly. And so I think to be, to be absolutely fair, I think we, we actually quite liked constitution of knowledge. I think that the the part and I definitely learned a lot of new things from it, including yeah, especially the first part was kind of talks about the social element of knowledge making.
But we felt that the tone in the book was a little bit more final in the sense that there's a reality-based community, like kindly inquisitors, it really emphasized this notion of fallibility and that we never really arrive. Whereas in the constitution of knowledge, our reading of it was a little more final that there's this reality-based community, these are the people that fall under that umbrella. And when they come out with something, there was this ton of like, it's a little more final that they have the truth .
**Jon:** It is, that's a, that's a super valuable observation. And I noticed that in your podcast and. you're correct that kindly inquisitors first, you said it's a cleaner book and that's true. It is shorter. It is more schematic. Part of that is because I ran out of time and patience to write it. At some point I just realized I might never get it published.
So, but it's also a more libertarian book and it was after all published by the world's leading libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute here in Washington. And the message of that book is it's an open-ended process of public criticism driven by free speech and common discourse. And and it works because it works and yeah, constitution of knowledge has, it says, you do need freedom of speech, but it's not enough.
You need two other things. You need the discipline of fact. And that's provided by these institutions and mechanisms to say, you know what, Trish and Hirad, the only way that you can get knowledge into a textbook is to go through these institutions and steps. And yes, they're exclusive. Yes. You're probably going to have to be an expert to do it.
And yes. Although anything is fallible and principle, if something has sustained many forms of testing over a period of decades, you can't just come along and throw it out because you feel like it, you got to respect it. So yeah, it's got a very different emphasis. It's got more of an emphasis on institutions and the things that don't change and it's a less libertarian book.
I think they're consistent with each other. I mean, I tried to fold the framework of kindly inquisitors into the framework of constitution of knowledge, but yeah, I also had to have significantly more emphasis on the rules that we have to follow, like it or not.
**Hirad :** So I think that's a good segue into the other thing we want to talk about as well, which is that the reality-based community in some circles at least has a little bit of a bad rap. And I think had I read this book maybe two years ago I would have come away from it being in total agreement.
But I think the last two years have kind of this notion of kind of there being an expert class with these institutions that we are supposed to rely on. My perception is that there we we're not there at this point for a number of reasons, some of which you are outlined in the book, which being, for example, with the news media, a lot of the business models have been under attack by the rise of the internet.
But also, you know, we've had in in the last two years, some pretty abysmal responses to COVID when it first happened and things that we talked about it in a mini episode things for example, on whether people should be wearing masks or not, there were things that they knew they were misinforming the public on. And we've had just this, these series of institutional failures. Right. And I think that in that kind of context is one of the things that made me, it made it hard for me to swallow that pill. And I think one of the things that I also critiqued on, it was a lot of the examples.
For example, the lab leak theory was perceived as some fringe conspiracy. Right. I think you, in the book, you briefly kind of painted it as such because at the time that you were probably writing the book, the people that were talking about lab leak were. Considered fringe, conspiracy theorists, whereas that's less the case today.
So I feel like we're in this backdrop of a series of very high profile institutional failures, and I don't necessarily mean to paint it as universal that all these institutions are failing on all things at all times, but it's a bit of a, what do you make of this state that we're in at the moment where I think a lot of the epistemic crisis that people are facing it stems from these high profile examples of just misinformation that came from institutions that were supposed to be able to trust.
**Jon:** Yeah, I would, I'd love to talk about that. I also want to, if we have time, just go back to the threat about partisanship, which you detected and constitution knowledge, and I can address that quite briefly. And I could go there first, if you want, before we get into.
Other examples and just say, Yeah.
the hardest thing about talking about this book constitution of knowledge is I am probably the least partisan person you'll ever meet and I am center right.
And I have admired and voted for many Republicans, but I got to call it as I see it. And right now I think that Trump and the MAGA movement are the biggest threat to liberal democracy in America. By far, I'm very worried as you know about the cancel culture and the other weaponization of social coercion, that's being used by the political left and wokeness and all that.
And as you probably, as you notice, there's actually more material on that in the book than there is about Trump, because I figured the book was written in last year and it was closed just around the time of the Capitol riots. I was barely able to squeeze in a mention of that in January, and I thought.
When I wrote it, well, probably by June of 2021, when the book comes out, Trump will be history. I gave Biden two out of three that he'd win. And the Republican party would kind of snap back to something more like its normal state. And we wouldn't be having this conversation about Trump and MAGA anymore.
And that section of my book would look obsolete. Well, boy, was I wrong? I'm up to is depending which poll you believe 60 to 70% of Americans believe the election was stolen right now in the state of Wisconsin, the Republicans are taking away control a vote counting or trying to from a nonpartisan officials and giving it to the legislature.
And they're actually talking about criminalizing and putting people in jail who are counting votes, and this is happening in my home state of Arizona. So this is, this is not a theoretical proposition. And so I find myself in this position where people say, well, it's a partisan book and attacks Trump.
And I just have to just say, well, you know what, I got to call it as I see it make up your own mind. And that's the best I can do on that is and just take my lumps. A lot of, I can tell you a lot of conservatives and Republicans who are MAGA supporters, don't like this book. So Yeah.
So the second question about the decline in, in Hirad's trust, at least in the reality-based community, Trish, do you feel the same way?
**Trish:** Maybe not as much to the extent, but I'm definitely sort of on, in the same ballpark as Hirad. You know, I understand that you're a journalist and I, I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but it feels hard. Really sort of trust a lot of media institutions. And I mean, I grew up in a really small town in upstate New York, actually, where, you know, there was one local newspaper and it wasn't great.
And so to try and sell something of going back towards institutions like that trusting more of that just when I came from somewhere with, you know, there was, you know, before the internet, there was not a lot of diversity of opinion and stuff that there's, there's a few things that, that brings up for me.
**Jon:** Well, there's a bunch of things there. One is that, of course, in some measure, the skepticism, both your, of your expressing is healthy and necessary, and it's going to help journalists do a better job in the future. And it's also nothing new. My, my, the publisher, the first, the paper where I had my first job out of college used to say this in the days when we delivered newspapers by literally tossing them at people's houses and trying not to break their windows or land in the bushes.
He used to say, we're the only industry that throws our mistakes on your doorstep every morning. So these mistakes are highly conspicuous, even if they're fairly rare. They're highly conspicuous. And sometimes they're not all that rare. What is, I think distinctive about the reality-based community is that it corrects its mistakes when it finds them.
Now, Sean Hannity on Fox news did not correct his mistakes until threatened with a lawsuit because their business model is, if something has good ratings, then they go with it. Right. But you can't do that in my business in journalism. If you get it wrong, eventually, hopefully sooner, rather than later, that will surface as other people do other reporting.
Whereas reality becomes clearer or as the fog of confusion in the early part of the pandemic clears. And I think the question isn't do we get stuff wrong? It's do we fix it? Do we repair it clearly in the case of, for example, confusing guidance about whether to wear masks that was cleared up and pretty darn quickly. The same is true of, for example, the Wuhan leak, the same is true. For example, notorious example of, of some boys at a Catholic high school who were accused of behaving badly at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the facts were all wrong. There is, and the result was very unjust, but that was all corrected within a matter of couple of days.
So what I think is important is looking at the accountability in the corrections, not necessarily the official theory. And then what final point is that? I don't remember all the examples that you guys used and challenging my examples in saying that the reality-based community had, had messed up, but I think actually the reality based community did a much better job than you give a credit for.
I put a note in the chat. I hope that maybe you can throw into the show notes take the lab leak theory. I looked into that the original fact checked I think it was PolitiFact said that the idea that the virus was deliberately created in a lab engineered in the lab is a conspiracy theory. However, it might have spread from a lab as a result of research. That is still the case. That is an accurate account. People got confused because the deliberate engineering idea is a conspiracy theory. There's no evidence for it. The possibility that research was being done and it leaked out is not a conspiracy theory.
A lot of the media got that right at the time. Maybe not enough, but then it was subsequent reporting by outlets like the wall street journal, as well as subsequent developments that alerted us to maybe we'd gotten that wrong. So the article that I just linked to. Says that I think this is an example of the success of the reality-based community, not the failure.
I think you guys alluded to the Trump Russia business as a case of getting it wrong. Uh-ah collusion happened. It clearly happened. What's been, I think what we've seen is an extraordinarily successful example of misdirection, but we can go on about these things. But part of what happens I think is that people get in these bandwagons where people start denouncing the media for something and are actually guilty of the sin that they accused the media of, which is bandwagoning and jumping to conclusions and not looking at all the evidence.
So I'm, I'm prepared to stand by my examples actually in the book and say that maybe people are a little bit too quick to jump to cynical and mistrustful conclusions.
**Hirad :** My pushback on that would be that I feel like a lot of the, especially, I mean, the pandemic is a bit of a special case, you know, it's, it's a health crisis that has been politicized, but certainly in terms of political topics, I would say. The mistakes tend to all happen in one direction. And the fixes are not quite as publicized as, as the corrections.
They're not quite as publicized as some of the original stories are. And I think that kind of fuels the the disagreement that a lot of people on the, on the right would have or the mistrust that a lot of people on the right would have of the mainstream media is that there is a narrative that once something like theJussie Smollett, I can never pronounce his name Jussie that's the remember that hoax that of this black actor,
**Jon:** Jesse Smollet. Yeah. I'm not sure how it's pronounced either, but I know how it's spelled Jussie Smollett is how it's spelled.
**Hirad :** Right. Yeah. And, and so I think with stories like that, they, when they fit a certain story about you know, do we live in a racist country? Is there systemic racism? Is there is everybody do we, do we live in a patriarchy? I think there's this, this is a narrative that has become sexy over the last couple of years.
And when something, when a story fits, I think enough questions are not asked. And so the, the biases are kind of clear. And I think that they're also the thing that fuels the, the misperception. And again, I think probably if you look at every single story that, for example, the New York times publishes, it may be that the vast majority are not even are completely true or an example, exemplary journalism.
But there are these really big, iconic moments where you know, like, like the example you mentioned of the Covington high school students at the Lincoln Memorial, these are kind of plastered everywhere and everyone sees them for at least a couple of weeks in the case of say something like the Steele dossier for a couple of years.
And again, like the mistakes are all happening in one direction. Right? So
the coverage of the Steele dossier was accurate and it was justified. And I can give you chapter and verse on that if you want to get into it. And it frustrates me no end that that's been used as a red herring to distract people away from the real wrongdoing in that situation, which was not the FBI and was not Christopher Steele, it was Donald Trump and his campaign.
So we won't go down that rabbit hole, but let me just state that for the record. In the case of the Covington boys at the Capitol, the narrative, the original narrative lasted probably less than a day. Within two days, you had to live under a rock, not to be aware that the facts were not as initially spread.
And most of that spread through social media I will agree with you. And I say in the book that we do have a problem, at least in the U S I don't know about Canada of mainstream media, that does not have enough diversity viewpoint, viewpoint, diversity, I should say, in its newsroom to sustain the right kind of critical culture, as much as we need to.
And unfortunately, that problem, although people are aware of it, it may be getting worse and not better. And also because the New York times is so visible and now so woke, it has become a synecdoche. I never know how to pronounce that word for all the wrong with the media. My friend Andrew Sullivan for instance, seems to be just completely focused on the New York times and its wokeness.
And I have to remind people that it is not in fact the entire American media, but yeah, I, I agree with. There are too many mistakes that are all in the same direction. It is not random error making, and we've got to do a better job with that. But my problem is understanding how to get people, to walk and chew gum on this issue.
And, and to understand that that the critiques of media as being too left wing biased are accurate and need to be repaired. But on the other hand, they are still grounded in an ethos of fact-checking of reality, basing of correcting. If it's not always the same institution that corrects it prominently, it will be others.
And that we also have to keep and value what as good about these things, because the alternatives are so much worse, right. Way worse. And we have to remember that American journalism at least today with all its flaws is vastly more. Reality-based vastly less partisan than it was say a hundred years ago. And that was the result of a lot of people working very hard, identifiable people, organizations like the American society of newspaper editors, schools, like journalism schools across the country, practitioners working really hard to try to instill an ethos of get it right.
You will get it wrong, run a correction or find out other people's mistakes. And to be honest with you guys, maybe because I'm a journalist and because I get defensive about this and because I know how hard so many people are out there working to try to get it right in a situation where they have to react and publish faster and faster and faster and more and more and more, I'm very unpersuasive on this issue.
And I haven't figured out yet. What to say to people who cherry pick, as I see at these prominent examples and say the whole enterprise is corrupt.
**Trish:** I know we just closed in on an hour. I feel like Hirad and I would love to monopolize your entire afternoon, but I just didn't want, I'm trying to be cognizant of time here.
**Hirad :** Yeah, I just wanted to add one thing on a, on a quite positive note from reading your books. When I first read kindly inquisitors it, it was a little depressing in that it was so You know, it w it was written 30 years ago and it, and so much of its warnings had had come true. And it was quite, that was quite sad to see as good as the book was.
But then when I read constitution of knowledge, I think there's this really wonderful optimism in it. And you, you alluded to it earlier in that the work of defending liberal science and the reality-based community is never done, and I think , we tend to always think that a lot of the problems we're dealing with are new problems that are unique to our times.
And I think you make the point in the book that no, every morning when you get up and your children and your children's children, you're going to have to go to work and. defend, the liberal system. And I think we, we are where we are because other people have done that in the past. And I think that was a really wonderful, optimistic note and inspiring note to kind of keep doing that work in whatever small ways we can.
And hopefully, hopefully it triumphs over any kind of illiberalism of left or right.
**Trish:** that's such a good point. I really felt like, so much of the narrative on a lot of things these days is the world has gone to hell in a hand basket. And I really appreciate that you are giving people some hope and some encouragement and, , making us feel like there is something we can do.
And yeah, it was. So that was really encouraging.
**Jon:** Well I'm happy. I'm happy to hear that. I, I think of the book is hopeful rather than optimistic the distinction being we'll have to do some real work to get things back on track, and that's gonna involve journalists like me and universities in my country at least have even more to do to clean up their act way too much discrimination against conservative, libertarian, centrist, non, non left wing viewpoints.
It means figuring out what to do with the unleashing of mass Russian style mass disinformation in the American and actually global. But especially American political context that is new in America, at least since the 1850s. And we do not know how to deal with it. And it has been devastating to, to our politics and much more.
And the bad news is it doesn't happen automatically. We can't just set and forget, you know, the have, have free speech. The rest takes care of itself. The good news is that we have faced down bigger challenges. We, you know, liberal societies writ large have faced down bigger challenges. And frankly, a lot of it is up to you guys.
I'll be dead when you guys figure out how to keep reality-based journalism alive and thriving. It's a challenge. And the biggest challenge isn't, left-wing bias. It's the collapse of the business model. You know, who's, who's going to make the news. It's very hard to do that. You guys are going to have to figure out how to straighten out some of these problems at the universities.
And the problem that the Hirad I think you referred to earlier, the chilling that's going on. Some of my Canadian friends say it's, more of a problem north of the border than south of the border. So when I say hopeful, not optimistic, I mean, there's a lot of work to do and you guys are gonna have to do it.
And that's one of the reasons I was so, so really tickled actually. So excited when I stumbled across your podcast, young people wrestling so intelligently, so conscientiously so seriously with these ideas. I was your age when I started work on kindly inquisitors and here we are, and we're still wrestling with them, but I'm feeling like there's a new set of people coming along who are up to the job.
**Trish:** Well, I think it's I think it's really incredible too, that you don't just talk the talk about knowledge making and learning, being a process and a conversation you're willing to take your Friday afternoon to speak to us and have the conversation with us. So we really appreciate that so much.
**Jon:** It's I seriously consider it an honor. Now, you know, whether there's time to do it all the time is a different question, but to be in the position of writing these books, usually you are basically putting them on a rocket ship into space. You never hear back, maybe a thousand, light years from now, you know, some alien civilization will happen across them, but once in a while you get a ping back and some part of the world says, Hey, we notice these books we're grappling with, we have stuff to say about them.
And it just really feels like my privilege to be able to be with you and have a conversation like this, about something that I wrote.
**Hirad :** Well on that note, we really appreciate it. And thank you listeners for joining us.